Dispatch from Seoul Fall Fashion Week: Where Korean Fashion Excels and Where It Falls Short

SEOUL--Seoul is a powerful and wealthy mega-city with a large consumer base--that means there's a huge appetite for branded luxury goods. The city's Cheongdam-dong, a 12-lane wide boulevard, is lined with so many luxury shops that it's earned nickname ‘Street of Luxury Goods.’ The 10 Corso Como on Cheongdam-dong, which opened in 2008 in partnership with Samsung Cheil (the Samsung Fashion Group), is even larger than the Milan flagship. Due to high demand for avant-garde fashion, a second 10 Corso Como opened just last month at the high-end mall Lotte Avenuel, joining Prada, Givenchy, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Lanvin and more. Despite the obvious appetite for luxury designs, there seems to be an absence of good risk-taking design in Seoul.
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SEOUL--Seoul is a powerful and wealthy mega-city with a large consumer base--that means there's a huge appetite for branded luxury goods. The city's Cheongdam-dong, a 12-lane wide boulevard, is lined with so many luxury shops that it's earned nickname ‘Street of Luxury Goods.’ The 10 Corso Como on Cheongdam-dong, which opened in 2008 in partnership with Samsung Cheil (the Samsung Fashion Group), is even larger than the Milan flagship. Due to high demand for avant-garde fashion, a second 10 Corso Como opened just last month at the high-end mall Lotte Avenuel, joining Prada, Givenchy, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Lanvin and more. Despite the obvious appetite for luxury designs, there seems to be an absence of good risk-taking design in Seoul.
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Long Nguyen is the co-founder and style director of Flaunt SEOUL--Seoul is a powerful and wealthy mega-city with a large consumer base--that means there's a huge appetite for branded luxury goods. The city's Cheongdam-dong, a 12-lane wide boulevard, is lined with so many luxury shops that it's earned nickname ‘Street of Luxury Goods.’

The 10 Corso Como on Cheongdam-dong, which opened in 2008 in partnership with Samsung Cheil (the Samsung Fashion Group), is even larger than the Milan flagship. Due to high demand for avant-garde fashion, a second 10 Corso Como opened just last month at the high-end mall Lotte Avenuel, joining Prada, Givenchy, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Lanvin and more.

Despite the obvious appetite for luxury designs, there seems to be an absence of good risk-taking design in Seoul. Take the skyline, for example. It lacks any visible and symbolic monuments to creative architecture. Daniel Libeskind’s Tangent Facade Design for The Hyundai Development Company, a steel circle encompassing a grid of red and white lines,or Unsangdong Architects' Kring Creative Culture Space with its rippled and layered circular windows, are Seoul’s architectural stand outs among a sea of office towers and residential high rises. Imagine finding your way home late at night when all the buildings look exactly alike save for a number on the side of each building?

A similar mindset seems to operate in fashion in Seoul as well. Most of the designers showing at Seoul fashion week seemed bent on the commercial side of fashion rather than exploring the creative.

While their clothes will surely to sell in the domestic market, many of these designers lacked sufficient design breath and original thinking to compete in the global fashion market. The emphasis here is on producing sellable clothes rather than creating interesting and innovative collections.

Of course, there were a few stand outs.

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Studio K “The design aspect of the clothes are important but from the perspective of customers who have to purchase the clothes, it is very critical to have the basic items that are well done and with a twist," said Hong Hye Jin of Studio K at her all-in-one showroom, studio and shop. "Design is important from one side and tailoring is important on another."

The collection she showed had beautifully made long dresses, and tailored suits with slim lapels on jackets. On the walls of her emporium, above the range of men’s suits, are framed black and white photographs each zooming on the detailed process of creating the perfect jacket. Her sensible approach to fashion is common ground for designers here, especially those who have not ventured abroad either for school, or to work with other designers, or to show their collections in Paris or New York.

I have mentioned in previous reports from Seoul that there is a gulf separating those Korean designers who have significant experience living and working abroad versus those who remained at home. Those who have embrace globalism, like Songzio, Juun J., Wooyoungmi, and Park Choon Moo, have been able to slowly build their collection beyond the domestic market.

No one understands this better than Lie Sang Bong...

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Lie Sang Bong No one understands this better than Lie Sang Bong who started his collection in 1985 and who has been showing in Paris every season since 2002.

“The most attractive reason for joining both Paris and Seoul Fashion Week is that I can express my inspirations in varieties of ways," said Lie Sang Bong. "For example, the theme is strongly emphasized with only the essential pieces used to create a perfect mood of the show in Paris. Hence the looks for the Seoul Fashion show are more diverse and entertaining with strong performances and more showmanship for the Korean fans. By joining more fashion shows in different places, I believe I can express my inspiration in varieties of ways according to their style and the culture.”

His new collection, made locally with fabrics specially developed in Korea, is based on the Doi Dam, old Korean stone walls. The stones became the inspiration for the charcoal makeup covering the models’ faces and the 3D embroideries and patterns on jackets, skirts and dresses. A stretch silk dress embroidered with black shiny stones was a highlight.

As a fashion designer working in Seoul, Mr. Lie is an exception and there is no comparison.

Traditional Korean culture has influenced Mr. Lie's previous collections, notably the Hangeul collections where the Korean alphabet made up the prints. The intersection of tradition and modernity is central to all of Mr. Lie’s work, and as such his fashion attempts to connect different cultures and peoples together. In this respect he is the foremost ‘international’ of the Korean designers at the moment.

"For me, [Paris] is a door to promote my country and the culture to international people from all around the world," he said. "And I also get inspired by their culture through their feedback.”

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General Idea “Showing my collection in New York since 2006 has completely changed my business and in some ways I have managed to develop a wider range for the collection," said Choi Bum Suk of General Idea. "Before New York, I was selling in three countries and after that first show there I expanded to 15 in one season."

Mr. Choi’s personal style (he was wearing an old drawn-on army jacket and black jeans) is a mixture of vintage and streetwear--and this is reflected in his collection and his brand. For this fall, he focused on the leisure clothes worn by athletes after a game--like a dark green plaid wool coat with orange leather sleeves worn with gray sweat pants.

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Leyii

“I was really inspired by fencing competitions from the 18th century and the emphasis on the structures and forms of the clothes rather than the actual fighting,” said Lee Sung Hee of Leyii in a perfect English accent honed at Central Saint Martins. A long white wool coat with large lapels worn with slim black pants, and a shorter wide lapel coat worn with a black chiffon dress were standouts at her show.

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Lee Doii Another Central Saint Martins graduate, Ms. Lee Doii worked in various Paris ateliers before launching her own collection in 2008. Ms. Doii continued her romantic and ultra feminine clothes, with this collection centered on delicate dresses.

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Steve J and Yoni P Steve Jung and Yoni Pai of Steve J and Yoni P (also CSM grads) established their trendy contemporary collection while at school in 2006. Steve and Joni embraced space age futurism with colorful printed sweat suits and vinyl sweaters over white lace skirts.

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In Seoul, both the Metropolitan and the state government invest heavily to ensure the success of these designers. Seoul City sponsored the bi-annual shows by providing the show space location to all designers and, in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture, sent designers abroad as a group like Concept Korea.

But fashion isn’t tourism and applying principles of vacation and sight seeing promotions to fashion isn’t feasible. There has to be a long-term view: That of helping the designers to establish outposts abroad. To export the designers have to be competitive on quality and creativity. More importantly, it is critical for them to participate in the global dialogue of fashion.

Perhaps the government should view their help to Korean fashion as a small-scale foreign aid program but one without any stringent conditions attached. Promising designers should get help to go abroad--whether it's Paris or New York. Time should be spent with key buyers and influential press to foster a familiarity with their brand.

“European fashion has a reputation as the finest in the world, so it is very important for young designers in Seoul to go study abroad," said Lie Sang Bong. "Many Korean young designers want to gain global prominence as they know the importance of the collections in Europe. Good thing Lie Sang Bong is the head of the newly created Union of Korean fashion designers.